Commentary on Exodus 34:29-35
When Moses comes down from meeting with God on Mount Sinai, the text repeatedly notes that the skin of his face was shining (Exodus 34:29, 30, and 35). Rather than ask Moses what skin care routine helped him to achieve such notable radiance, Aaron and the Israelites react with fear (verse 30).
For centuries, Moses’ terrifying visage was often described as “having horns” rather than “shining.” An early translation of the Bible into Latin (by Jerome in the 4th century CE) popularized the notion that Moses had horns in the Christian world, and many famous artistic renderings of Moses carried on this tradition. This interpretation is not as far-fetched as it seems at first blush since the Hebrew root used here (qrn) occurs dozens of times in the Bible to unambiguously indicate an animal’s horn. However, most modern scholars agree that other early translations (like the Septuagint in the 3rd century BCE) are correct in describing Moses as glowing, not horned.
Whether one envisions antlers or an afterglow, this passage presents an unsettling tension for the people: the word of God that the Israelites need to live by ironically comes from Moses’ frightening face (verses 33–35). Furthermore, this incongruous pairing of that which is terrifying and nurturing comes about because of Moses’ proximity to God.
Moses’ face symbolizes an unlikely pairing of the deadly and life-giving. It may seem strange at first, but it is a fact of life worth recognizing. And the Israelites in the Bible had experience with this difficult tension because it is a persistent element of their relationship with Moses and God leading up to our passage.
In Exodus 19–20, God is both deadly and necessary to their survival. The emancipated Israelites arrive at the wilderness of Sinai where the God who orchestrated their salvation shocks them with blasting noise, billowing smoke, and a fiery presence upon the holy mountain. Since this terrifying exhibition of God’s holiness is dangerous, there are limits and protocols when approaching God (Exodus 19:10–13, 20–24).
God begins a special covenant relationship with all the people listening to God proclaim the “The Ten Commandments” (Exodus 20:2–17). But God’s audience narrows to only Moses by the end of the chapter because the people fear that proximity to God’s instructions (which they need to learn) can also be deadly (Exodus 20:18 – 21).
After Moses receives God’s teachings for the people, another episode illustrates the tension between the deadly and life-giving. At the end of chapter 31, Moses is ready to return to the people, but it is too late. Exodus 32 relays the infamous “Golden Calf” incident where, in response to Moses’ prolonged absence, Aaron and the Israelites create an idol in direct violation of God’s word from Exodus 20:4–6. In those verses, God not only forbids such a practice, but God also expounds on the gravity of the issue: “I the LORD your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” God can punish severely or show steadfast love; in this case, the covenant breakers should expect punishment.
God tells Moses the plan: God will destroy the Israelites and start a new nation through Moses (Exodus 32:10). Unlike Noah, who received a very similar proposal from God (Genesis 6:13, 18), Moses does not accept the offer for God to start over with him. Moses advocates for the sinful people.
He appeals to God for a different course of action—not because the people deserve it, but because all who witness the survival of the Israelites can testify that God’s promises are trustworthy (Exodus 34:11–13). It works! God relents when Moses uses his close relationship with God as a conduit to secure blessings for others regardless of their merits.
But the Moses who saves the people is also a terror. After God relents, Moses succumbs to violence when he sees the sin of the people with his own eyes. In a fit of rage, Moses assembles an armed troop and orders them to kill “your brother, your friend, and your neighbor” (Exodus 32:27).
In yet another episode, the tension between deadly and life-giving leans decidedly toward life. After God has assured Moses that God’s presence will guide the people in spite of their obstinance, Moses requests to see God’s “glory” (Exodus 34:18). As with the example from Exodus 19–20, a close human encounter with God’s holiness can be deadly. So, God grants Moses only a partial view while saving Moses from a fatal look at God’s face (Exodus 33:20–23). But this visual revelation (which leaves an indelible mark on Moses’ visage) is coupled with an equally profound revelation of God’s character that has lasting significance for the people.
In Exodus 34:6–7, God discloses the essence of God’s nature: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.” Although these words are similar to what God voiced in Exodus 20:4–6, there is a noteworthy difference as well. Here, God foregrounds grace, mercy, and forgiveness that is not based on faithfulness to God’s covenant.
As God’s people continue to live in the difficult space where that which they need for life can be deadly, and as the people perennially fall short in their covenant with God, many hold tightly to this idea of a merciful and gracious God (see also Nehemiah 9:17; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13). This new identity of God animated by compassionate forgiveness explains how God can relent from rejecting the people who have just broken the covenant. And the perspective that God’s steadfast love and unmerited forgiveness outweighs punitive justice becomes a beacon of hope for fallible people facing the great tensions of a dangerous and uncertain world.
The symbol of Moses’ frightful face conveying the nourishing word of God in our lectionary reading can remind us that we can be honest about the odd and terrifying aspects of life while also putting our hope in a vision of the God who can sustain us.